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Restructuring Science in Russia

The Russian government is counting on young scientists to stimulate the economy through applied research.

Jamie L. Vernon

The brightly lit, open office, with its exposed brick walls and dark wood shelves adorned with perfectly maintained succulent plants, is situated among newly renovated laboratories at the State University of Information Technology, Mechanics, and Optics (ITMO University) in Saint Petersburg. It has the look and feel of a metropolitan business incubator. The place, where graduate students gather to discuss their data, has an entrepreneurial quality consistent with the Russian Federation’s emerging focus on university research and commercialization. It’s a departure from Russia’s legacy of modest but consistent investments in basic research, historically distributed through the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS).

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This reprioritization comes after years of scientific stagnation dating back to the 1990s, when large numbers of scientists left the Russian state. To reverse the effects of this brain drain, tap into young talent, and stimulate the economy, President Vladimir Putin began implementing reforms about a decade ago, which he accelerated in 2013. The Federal Agency for Scientific Organizations (FASO), a newly established funding agency, gives universities a larger role in the conduct of scientific research, whereas the formerly dominant RAS and its associated institutes have seen a decline in influence over the national research agenda.

As a result, the students and faculty at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (MIPT), called Phystech, located on the outskirts of the capital city, exude an undeniable scientific fervor and optimism. Their confidence originates from the leadership of the university, which served as the host organization for a press tour of Russian research institutions in February.

In his opening presentation, Vice-Rector for Scientific Affairs and Strategy Tagir Aushev made a case for Phystech to be considered one of the top universities in the world. As part of the country’s “Project 5-100,” Phystech has joined with ITMO and a group of 19 other selected universities working to increase their competitive position in the global research and education markets. The goal of the project is to get five national universities into the top 100 global rankings by 2020. To do this, Phystech has focused on developing advanced research programs, technology transfer, and internationalization.

In recent years, the university has received government support to increase campus laboratory space from 10,000 square feet to more than 430,000 square feet, attracted more foreign students, and formed partnerships with 24 countries, including the United States, Germany, France, and Japan. It currently ranks among the top 3 national universities and has entered the top 400 global universities, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The counter effect of these changes is evident in the facilities and resources at the RAS institutes, where funding cuts require researchers to seek creative support for their work. The director of the Academy’s Shemyakin-Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, Vadim Ivanov, remains undaunted: “We are working in exciting areas, which we don’t want to change principally.”

Ivanov’s determination will be tested as Putin’s plan to focus on universities and applied research advances. It’s a risky decision intended to bring big rewards. Nearly 80 percent of funding now goes to technology-related science, according to Sergei Matveev, a representative of the Ministry of Education and Science. The transition comes when overall funding for research is down from previous years. According to the 2015 UNESCO Science Report, Russia’s share of global investments in research and development dropped from 2.0 percent to 1.7 percent between 2009 and 2013. During the same period, Russian research funding was reduced from 1.25 percent to 1.12 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), compared with a global average of 2.124 percent in 2013.

In 2006, President Putin established the Russian Venture Company (RVC) to stimulate venture capital investments and generate financial support for the high-tech sector. Three years later, President Dmitry Medvedev announced the formation of the Skolkovo Innovation Center, a 600-acre development project that would house up to 50,000 researchers and technologists just southwest of Moscow by 2020. These initiatives have suffered from insufficient funding due to plummeting oil prices—a key revenue source for the Russian government—along with economic sanctions by the United States.

Despite these challenges, Russian researchers have had successes. The Russian Quantum Center (RQC) is a private research group that intends to compete with Google, IBM, and Microsoft in the global pursuit of a quantum computer. Quantum computing harnesses physical phenomena, such as superposition and entanglement, to perform data operations faster and more flexibly than classical computers can. The technology promises to revolutionize the way we analyze large data sets, including search optimization and cryptography.

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The company was launched in 2010 as one of the first 16 resident projects at Skolkovo. It has since expanded to have nearly 200 employees and has received private funding from Gazprombank, the third largest financial institution in Russia. With an average employee age of 34, RQC embodies the nation’s focus on young researchers. “We are very young, and so we have the energy to do something,” says Chief Executive Officer Ruslan Yunusov.

His independent advisory board handpicked some of the leading scientists in the country—including Michael Gorodetsky, who worked on the LIGO Scientific Collaboration that recently detected the first evidence of gravitational waves—for full-time positions in the organization. Gorodetsky and others have recruited accomplished students and postdocs to work on their projects. “Maybe in five to six years we will have a quantum computer, and it will change the world,” says Yunusov.

Chief Research Fellow Pavel Belov expressed a similar optimism by emphasizing that the average age of students and postdocs at ITMO is 28. He and his colleagues at the university presented their research to visiting journalists during the tour. Belov is partnering with America-based companies to develop a grid system composed of metamaterials that enhances the sensitivity of magnetic resonance imaging devices. Clinical trials are under way. Research Fellow Valentin Milichko is studying the use of metal-organic perovskite to enhance the absorption efficiency of solar cells, one of the few projects focused on alternative energy. Others are working on smart drug design and targeted drug delivery.

In a country with such a remarkable history of fundamental research, mostly dedicated to national defense, the shift of resources from the Academy to universities is causing significant disruptions. Vladimir Fortov, president of the RAS, was recently relieved of his duties by the Russian government. After Academy members cited flaws in the election process, the vote for a new president was postponed until the fall. Officials are now scrambling to stabilize the funding situation.

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Meanwhile, in the basement of ITMO, the high school robotics club prepares for the 2017 World Robot Olympiad, a contest in which they won their category in 2015 and in which they took second place in 2016. When asked about his plans for the future, 15-year-old Daniil Pavlov, this year’s team leader, said, “I prefer physics.” Now it’s up to the government to make that a fruitful decision.

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